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Cardiovascular or heart disease remains the leading cause of death globally.
Your diet significantly influences your risk of developing heart disease or experiencing health problems as a result of heart disease.
For this reason, your doctor or dietitian may have recommended that you follow a cardiac diet to improve your heart health.
This article explains what to eat and avoid on a cardiac diet, provides a 3-day sample menu, and discusses which supplements may offer heart-protective effects.
What is a cardiac diet?
A cardiac diet — also known as a heart-healthy diet — is commonly prescribed to prevent or treat heart disease.
Heart disease includes conditions such as:
- coronary artery disease
- coronary artery bypass graft
- myocardial infarction (heart attack)
- heart failure
Of these, coronary heart disease leads to the most deadly (1).
Another primary risk factor for heart disease is diet.
This is why doctors and dietitians prescribe a cardiac or heart-healthy diet to those who are at risk of developing heart disease or to manage the condition in those with heart disease.
There isn’t necessarily one best cardiac or heart-healthy diet as several types of dietary patterns such as the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) and Mediterranean diets offer heart-protective effects (2).
However, the guidelines for a cardiac diet that is prescribed in a hospital or long-term care facility generally follow the same guidelines.
Here are the guidelines for a cardiac diet (3):
- Cholesterol: 200 mg or less daily
- Saturated fat: Less than 10% of calories
- Sodium: 2,000 mg or less per day
- Added sugars: Less than 36 grams
- Fiber: 20–30 grams, of which 5–10 grams are soluble, per day
While cardiac diets restrict cholesterol, dietary cholesterol doesn’t affect most people’s blood cholesterol (4).
However, because animal-based foods rich in saturated fat are also rich in cholesterol, restricting saturated fat will also in turn restrict cholesterol.
Therefore, as long as you watch your saturated fat intake, you don’t need to worry about watching your cholesterol intake.
The cardiac diet emphasizes fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
A cardiac or heart-healthy diet restricts cholesterol, saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars while emphasizing fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Foods to eat
A cardiac diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
These foods are rich in fiber and plant compounds called polyphenols, which have potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
The diet also promotes low-fat dairy products since higher-fat versions are rich in saturated fat.
High intakes of saturated fat are significantly associated with heart disease but this association is primarily tied to the saturated fats found in processed meats, cakes, biscuits, dairy desserts like ice cream, and processed meats like bacon and sausage, rather than the saturated fat from full-fat dairy products like milk or yogurt (7).
Here is a list of foods that fit within the guidelines for a cardiac diet:
- Fruits: apples, berries, bananas, cherries, grapes, peaches, pears, etc.
- Vegetables: asparagus, broccoli, brussels sprouts, carrots, leafy greens, tomatoes, squash, etc.
- Grains: popcorn, oatmeal (old-fashioned or quick oats), quinoa, and whole-grain bread, pasta, and rice
- Dairy: milk, yogurt, low-sodium cottage cheese
- Plant-based dairy alternatives: unsweetened soy or almond milk
- Meats: lean cuts of meat that contain the words “loin” or “round”
- Poultry: eggs and skinless chicken and turkey
- Seafood: all shellfish and fish, especially fatty fish like salmon, herring, mackerel, and tuna
- Legumes: beans, peas, and lentils
- Nuts and seeds: all kinds, including almonds, Brazil nuts, chia seeds cashews, flax seeds, pine nuts, pistachios, pecans, etc.
- Oils: olive or canola oil
- Beverages: black coffee, tea, water, and other calorie-free beverages
Low sodium tends to be synonymous with low flavor but there are plenty of ways to flavor your foods without salt.
Try experimenting with herbs and sodium-free seasonings like Mrs. Dash.
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, fatty fish, and antioxidant-rich oils like olive oils comprise a heart-healthy diet.
Foods to avoid
A cardiac diet restricts cholesterol, saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium.
It can be overwhelming to watch your intake of so many nutrients since they tend to be in many foods.
However, they are found in excess in highly-processed foods so by watching your intake of these foods you can stay within the cardiac diet guidelines without having to obsessively track the foods you eat.
These foods tend to promote inflammation and negatively affect the gut microbiota (8).
Cooking at home more often will also help you limit foods that aren’t heart-healthy.
Avoid or limit these highly-processed foods:
- Processed meats: bacon, hot dogs, lunch meats, pepperoni, sausage
- Fatty cuts of meat: filet mignon, T-bone, New York strip, porterhouse, rib-eye steaks
- Breakfast cereals and bars: Cereals or bars that contain more than 3 grams of added sugars per serving
- Boxed mixes or meals: pancake, brownie, and cake mixes, pasta and rice meals
- Snack foods: salted pretzels, chips, crackers, etc.
- Fried foods: fish, french fries, chicken strips, cheese sticks, etc.
- Frozen meals: meat and pasta dishes, pizza, etc.
- Sauces and condiments: Barbeque sauce, ketchup, French dressing, honey mustard, soy sauce, spaghetti sauce
- Desserts and bakery items: biscuits, cakes, candies, cookies, ice cream, custard, puddings, pastries, etc.
- Sugary beverages: Regular soda, sports drinks, energy drinks, specialty coffees or teas
- Alcohol: beer, wine, and spirits
If you’re unsure whether a food meets the guidelines for heart healthy, read the nutrition label.
Here are some things to keep in mind when reading a nutrition label:
- Read the serving size. If you consume more than one serving, you will get more of the nutrients listed.
- Foods that contain less than 140 mg per serving are low-sodium.
- Limit foods with added sugars, a component of total sugars.
- A food that is a good source of fiber provides at least 10% of the daily value (DV).
- Foods that contain 1 gram or less per 100 grams (not more than 10% of calories from fat) are considered low in saturated fat.
Limit or avoid highly-processed foods like certain meats, frozen meals, desserts, bakery items, fried foods, and sugary beverages. Reading the nutrition label can help identify whether a food fits within the guidelines for a cardiac diet.
3-day Sample Cardiac Diet Menu
Here’s a 3-day sample cardiac diet menu:
- Breakfast: oatmeal topped with berries
- Lunch: avocado chicken salad
- Snack: Greek yogurt and almonds
- Dinner: baked salmon, quinoa, and sauteed green beans
Day 2 (vegan)
- Breakfast: vegan overnight oats
- Lunch: garbanzo bean salad
- Snack: grapes and walnut halves
- Dinner: lentil soup
- Breakfast: low-sodium cottage cheese spread on whole-grain toast
- Lunch: fish taco wrap with a side salad
- Snack: apple slices and homemade trail mix (nuts, seeds, popcorn, dried fruit, dark chocolate)
- Dinner: pork loin, brown rice, and roasted carrots
Use this 3-day sample cardiac diet menu to guide your meal and snack choices.
Heart healthy supplements
Along with diet, taking supplements can bolster your heart health.
Fish oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, namely eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid.
These fatty acids, especially EPA, have anti-inflammatory and triglyceride-lowering effects that have been shown to reduce the risk of dying or developing further health problems from heart disease (9).
Most studies demonstrating the heart-protective effects of fish oil for improving heart health have used prescription products.
However, fish oil from reputable brands like Wiley’s Finest is likely to offer similar benefits.
L-citrulline is an amino acid.
Its name stems from Citrullus vulgaris, the Latin word for watermelon, from which it was first derived.
Supplementing with l-citrulline increases levels of arginine in the blood, which increases the production of a molecule called nitric oxide.
Nitric oxide improves circulation and helps lower blood pressure.
A review of eight studies demonstrated that supplementing with at least 6 grams of l-citrulline led to significant reductions in blood pressure (11).
When elevated, blood pressure significantly increases the risk of heart disease and other health problems like kidney disease.
Find l-citrulline on Amazon.
Psyllium husk powder
Psyllium husk powder is a form of soluble fiber sourced from the husks of the psyllium (Plantago ovato) seed.
Supplementing with psyllium husk can help you meet the 5–10-gram daily soluble fiber guideline for a cardiac diet.
Soluble fiber lowers cholesterol by binding to it in your digestive system and eliminating it before your body has a chance to absorb it.
This is important since elevated cholesterol, namely LDL “bad” cholesterol, significantly increases heart disease risk.
A review of 28 studies demonstrated that supplementing with 10 grams of psyllium daily for at least three weeks significantly reduced LDL cholesterol by 12.8 mg/dL (12).
Shop for psyllium husk powder online.
Supplementing with fish oil, l-citrulline, and psyllium husk powder can improve heart healthy by lowering cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure.
The bottom line
Cardiovascular or heart disease is the number one killer worldwide.
You can significantly reduce your risk of developing heart disease or experiencing adverse health effects from the disease by following a cardiac diet.
A cardiac diet limits foods rich in saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and added sugars, while emphasizing foods rich in fiber and polyphenols.
Along with following a cardiac diet, taking fish oil, l-citrulline, or psyllium husk powder can offer further benefits for your heart.